What is the purpose of introducing the nun into the story?
The purpose of setting the nun into the story is to reveal the prevalent attitude of local white people towards the descendants of the black labourers in Australia – seemingly polite, responsive, helpful, yet deadly prejudiced and horrifyingly cold-hearted. It serves as a contrast to Mr. Knight, who symbolizes the rare group of white who truly view the white and black equally and care for their well-being.
First we observe that the nun is quite polite in words. Though her words smile, her heart does not. The nun’s racist attitude can be obviously shown from her change after realizing that the patient is actually a black, as ‘her smile vanished’. She refused the Mrs. Edwards’ poignant request with one ridiculous reason – other patients might say terrible things to her father about his race, while her father is truly dying, unable to walk, talk, or hear. She would rather choose to let a daughter watch her father die, than fulfilling the daughter’s heart-touching request. We know from the story that Mrs. Edwards is very closely attached to her father and unable to bear to see her father’s imminent death. What the nun does is inhuman and cruel. She represents the group of Australian people whose hearts the distinction of races is deeply rooted, in whose minds there is no room for racial equality. In the story, the caring heart of Mr. Knight can be easily observed, as his actions indicate. But even the fact that he is the local member of parliament, is unable to send a dying black into the nursing house, in face of a nun’s bias – or more precisely, the pressure from the whole society. This shows the racist mindset is still powerful, even insurmountable. Overall, the nun’s existence is to show us the racist attitude, though embellished with the pretence of care and politeness. And this attitude is tremendously influential.